Monday, October 8, 2012

:: the history and change of downtown boston bar culture ::

After focusing on the Colonial to pre-Prohibition era drinking life in Boston with David Wondrich, I moved on to my next talk held at Silvertone's Chez Freddie Lounge. I was really excited for this talk given by John Gertsen, Ryan McGrale, Tom Mastricola, and Josh Childs, and they most certainly did not disappoint. The title was "The History and Change of the Downtown Bar Culture."

Josh Childs started the talk with a little history about the space we were in. Silvertone was built at the turn of the century; in the pre-Prohibition days, it was the Century Grill's tap room and was one of the 35 bars in the downtown Boston area. After Prohibition, the space was the Chez Freddie Lounge from the 1930s to 1970s. In the room we were in was a Chez Freddie sign from the 1950s that was discovered in the Parker House's basement; Josh could not resist removing from their inventory system for a mere $10.

Josh opened up Silvertone 15 years ago, and he spoke of what the norm was then. Roses Lime Cordial and sour mix instead of fresh juice, no stirring only shaking, and garnish trays that ought to have been tossed a shift or more ago. The revelation came when Josh and Tom Mastricola from No. 9 Park went to bar camp in Oregon. When Tom saw them fresh juicing citrus, he made it his goal to switch and to proselytize the practice. Josh went so far as to declare that Tom was the one single person who helped start the Boston craft cocktail movement.

It was time for the first drink, so John Gertsen took over and described Boston's cocktail, the Ward Eight, that had been created in the downtown bar of Locke-Ober in 1898. Back then in the end of the 19th century, color was beginning to enter into the cocktails so the grenadine was a big deal. Similar drinks to the War Eight were being made elsewhere, but the history of the drink helped to make the recipe survive. In the early 20th century, the drink was often adapted to show off with elaborate garnishes of citrus, berries, and mint sort of how foams were big in the mid-2000s. John's variation can be found here; he left out the orange juice because he finds that while it works well with Champagne and Amaretto, it does not mesh with whiskey. Therefore, he replaced the juice with orange peel curl and orange bitters garnishes. Indeed, of the three Ward Eights I had that day, John's was certainly the best probably for that reason.

With a drink in hand, we could now continue on properly. Tom Mastricola explained how Barbara Lynch was a long time friend of his from South Boston and how she wanted to open a fine dining establishment in Boston in a way that did not exist here yet. The bar traditionally would be used as a waiting area to get into the restaurant; No. 9 Park wanted to change that by making the bar not only another major revenue center for the restaurant but by making it a dining space as well.
The drink that started the No. 9 bar program in motion is still their No. 1 best selling drink, the Palmyra. The Palmyra is a reference to a big leaf meant to fan and cool you off. It still rings of freshness which was not something that was happening much at the time it was created; had it been created elsewhere, Roses would have most likely been used. It soon became part of the first of many cocktail flights; the other two in that flight trio were the No. 10 (see below) and the Pear Martini. With the cocktail flights with three 2 oz cocktails, the staff could introduce the drinkers to new flavors such as No. 10's Campari.
• 3 oz Rain Vodka
• 3/4 oz Mint Syrup
• 3/4 oz Lime Juice
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wedge laid over a paired segment of mint leaves such that it looks like a winged bird on the edge of the glass.

No. 10
• 2 1/2 oz Tanqueray 10 Gin
• 1 oz Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice
• 3/4 oz Campari
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
Garrett Harker, No. 9's general manager at the time, told Gertsen after Gertsen joined in 2002 to purchase and study books by Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich, and the classic 1916-17 Hugo Ensslin's Recipes for Mixed Drinks. These led to John to help create an Aviation flight that I recall trying in 2007.

Silvertone's history was intertwined with No. 9 for Silvertone for it was the end of the night place for many people at No. 9 and other establishments in the area and often the beginning of many bad mornings. It took on a living room-like vibe but with a higher-that-average drink intelligentsia for the time. People were drinking pastis and water, for example. Tom declared that Garrett, No. 9, and Silvertone were the reason that Fernet Branca took off in Boston in 1998. The match was sparked at No. 9, they told Silvertone to carry it and thus the kindling was lit, and the fire took off at Eastern Standard. Ryan McGrale's first job out of college was working at No. 9. He described how he learned the art of the bar at No. 9 Park, but he learned about family and camaraderie at Silvertone by hanging out to the wee hours of the night. When writer Warren Bobrow asked, "Is [Silvertone] the Cure of New Orleans?", Gertsen replied, "This is more the cause than the cure." Other post-shift establishments were cited such as the Franklin and the B-Side Lounge as places where people got together, talked, and tried interesting bottles and combinations of spirits.

For the fourth drink of the event, John served at Cognac Old Fashioned. He declared that removing the muddled fruit from the Old Fashioned equation was a very big paradigm shift in the cocktail scene akin to fresh fruit and stirring straight spirits drinks. Of course this cocktail was followed by a goodbye toast of a standard post-shift drink of a Miller High Life pony and a shot of Fernet Branca. Josh ended the event with describing how Cedric Adams was pouring the first Green Chartreuse around town at Silvertone and how he got the ball moving with that. And how there were not twenty great bartenders in town, but 250. "Bartenders are like mothers, there are a lot of great ones."


rudyc said...

My farther and his brothers owned the Chez Freddie lounge many years ago.

frederic said...

Wow. I've passed this on to Josh who owns Silvertone. I'm sure that if you have any stories, he'd love to hear them. Cheers, Fred

rudyc said...

I have so many stories about that place it's unbelievable, Frankie Fontaine ( Crazy googinhine from the Jackie Gleason show used to frequent the Chez Freddie in the 50's, to see his friend Lenny Russ that entertained there,very often Gangsters were there,Maggie Scot a professor at the Berkley conservatory of music played the piano there for years,Many magure league umpires that stayed at the Parker house and wern't supposed to drink before a game would come in,Nester Shilac,Richie Garceia,Marvin Hagler came in at least twice a week when i bar-tended there in the 70"s He can contact me at

rudyc said...

By the way When it was the century Grill my fathers brother Freddie Carino and a cop in Boston owned it, Freddie bought out his partner the cop and brought in his 3 brothers as partners, they renovated the basement and named it Chez Freddie after there brother Freddie

Skr9 said...

I’m so thrilled to have found this buried in your blog. Many, many years ago I remember my first office happy at my new job took us to the bar at No. 9 Park and I remember the Palmyra being my first “fancy” cocktail. My tastes have matured way beyond vodka now, but making this brought back some nice memories.
We told you once in person - but it’s worth repeating - your blog is amazing and it certainly made quarantining a whole lot more bearable - thanks a million!

CocktailVirgin said...

Cheers! The Palmyra probably blossoms with a lighter style of gin. Most vodka drinks are better with gin in my opinion (and you'll see in my records that I'll order interesting vodka drinks on menus that way).